The annual ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) tasting in San Francisco is not for the faint-hearted. It's so big and rowdy at times that it's fashionable to dismiss it as a giant party, not a wine tasting. Call me a glutton for punishment but I've only missed a few of the 17 annual ZAP tastings. But this year's was different: I can't remember when I've been more excited about the potential of a new vintage: 2006.
Potential is a crucial word in this case. Saturday's ZAP event wasn't a blind tasting and many of the 2006s were barrel samples, and while I've learned over the years not to read too much into individual wines at ZAP, it's often a good indicator about the general quality of a vintage. And early signs say that the 2006 California Zinfandels are supple, balanced and fruit-forward wines. The wines were pleasingly ripe without being over the top (unlike many of the 2004s), and the tannins offer structure without getting in your face (unlike some of the 2005s).
I haven't seen this much consistency among producers at ZAP since the 1994 Zins were previewed. Granted, the '94s were riper than the 2006s appear to be, but the '06s are more balanced and user-friendly at a young age. It's too early to tell for certain whether they have the structure and depth of flavor to rank among the best Zinfandel vintages, but signs are good.
The 2006 vintage wasn't exactly an easy one. It was a cool and wet spring and the growing season got off to a late start. It was a moderate season in California and while the weather turned blistering hot in July, the grapes were still mostly hard and green so the impact was limited. Heading into harvest, the weather oscillated between warm and chilly days, with rain arriving on and off in October. The result was an extended harvest—and richer flavors—for those winemakers patient enough to allow for full maturity.
"In 2006, physiological ripeness happened at lower sugar levels," said Mick Unti of Unti Vineyards in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley, echoing the sentiment of many vintners. Ted Seghesio, winemaker of Seghesio Vineyards in Sonoma, said this meant that the tannins are ripe and approachable but the wines generally aren't high in alcohol.
About 8,000 Zin lovers grazed through tables that featured nearly 250 Zinfandel labels. I tasted dozens of wines from top producers and I didn't find a single wine that I would score below 82-84 on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale (a rarity at ZAP, even among the best wineries).
The two best 2006s of the day for me were the Robert Biale Napa Valley Old Crane Ranch and the Seghesio Zinfandel Alexander Valley San Lorenzo. Both wines combined richness and power with finesse, and while they are finished wines and in the bottle, they won't be released for a few months. Not far behind was the Turley Napa Valley Hayne Vineyard, an unfinished barrel sample, which was ripe like blackberry cobbler but had intense, focused flavors.
It was also a good vintage for Zinfandel's Three Rs: Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum (the latter of which was just snapped up by beverage giant Diageo for $105 million). The Ridge Lytton Springs was lush and elegant, while the Rosenblum Alexander Valley Harris Kratka Vineyard had a spicy backbone and great structure. The Ravenswood Napa Valley Dickerson had a deep, elegant authenticity, one of the most promising single-vineyard Zins from that producer in a few years.
The past three vintages have been a good run for Zin lovers. There are still plenty of 2004s lingering on the market and the bulk of the 2005s have arrived. Drink in the fruit of those two fine vintages as you wait to see if 2006 delivers on its promise in the coming months.